For Web browsers, stick with the Big 2

The Web has become indispensable to users searching the Internet for product prices or
hunting down contacts on agency intranets. Despite marketing campaigns and the notoriety
of antitrust actions, however, few people care which browser they use.


I decided to find out whether the most recent versions of browsers had any great
improvements over their predecessors. I looked at the two newest versions of browsers in
widespread use and one alternative.


Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 and Netscape Communicator 4.51 both are free. They arrive
preinstalled on new systems or can be downloaded from the Web. The alternative browser,
from Opera Software A/S, is free for only 30 days, then it costs $35.


Netscape Communications Corp.’s first browser, Navigator, took the world by storm
in the mid-1990s as it evolved from homegrown and freeware tools such as Mosaic. Microsoft
Corp. then crafted Explorer to compete with Navigator and began bundling and integrating
Explorer for free with desktop operating systems—a move that eventually led to the
Justice Department antitrust suit.


My tests showed that Explorer 5 is the champ in terms of comprehensive features. But it
does require a wide berth. Recently released in a downloadable form independent of
Microsoft OSes, it is loaded with dozens of features that balloon the software size and
system resource consumption.


Because I installed Explorer 5 over an earlier Explorer on my test machine, I did not
expect the download to be that large. Was I ever wrong.


The standard installation, 16M, does not include many of the new features. Once I had
customized the download and requested items such as new Web fonts and Internet radio, the
browser size jumped to 25.6M—not including some features I did not need.


With a 56-Kbps modem, the download would have taken more than an hour. Over the GCN
Lab’s high-speed connection it took only a few minutes, but a multiple-megabyte file
is still large for a mere upgrade.


One of the coolest yet least useful features is Explorer 5’s ability to pick up
radio stations from around the world. You can even sort the stations by location, music
format or favorites, but this is not a particularly important activity for government
users at work.


Sound quality is good, however, and Microsoft has reduced the effects of network
congestion on the signal.


On speed tests, Explorer again stood out for its logic-processing ability. It read and
processed information from Web pages almost three times faster than either Communicator or
Opera. Although it was slower than either at rendering graphics, the high logic scores
gave it the edge for speed.


Side by side with a machine running Explorer 4, Explorer 5 always pulled in pages
faster, though it took lots of resources. My system monitoring software indicated a 20
percent drop in available resources whenever Explorer 5 was running. That left much less
memory available for multitasking and non-Internet tasks.


Explorer also is a space hog. With all features enabled, it takes up a huge 111M. Most
users top it off around 50M, which is still a lot of room to allot to one application.


Explorer 5 also comes with an updated version of Outlook Express, which is an excellent
e-mail program for checking multiple accounts scattered around the Web.


Netscape Communicator was the all-around best browser in the review. Although it did
not work nearly as fast as Explorer in logic tests, it performed faster at rendering
graphics and image files. It was faster with text, too.


Netscape packed many new features into the browser. Some of the programs might not be
as slick as Explorer’s, but they do seem better suited to a work environment.


For example, Communicator has a small but useful integrated Hypertext Markup Language
designer called Netscape Composer. The interface is more like a word processor’s than
a page designer’s, so even brand-new webmasters can use it. Composer is
Netscape’s response to Microsoft’s FrontPage Express, which is included with
Explorer 5. They have basically the same features, but Composer is easier to use and
demands fewer system resources.


To counter Explorer’s Outlook Express, Netscape throws in a less satisfactory
e-mail program called Messenger. Also present is America Online’s Instant Messenger
program for chatting across the Internet. It makes a nice addition to the browser but is
geared more toward home use.


Communicator’s overall good performance earned it the Reviewer’s Choice
designation for this review. The only thing negative was its lack of polish compared with
Explorer. But that could be a plus for multitasking users who do not want a browser to get
in their way. It occupies 18M on the hard drive.


Opera 3.51, the wildcard in the browser wars, takes up little storage or resources. It
is simply a user tool, not a marketing vehicle for a larger cause. Because it costs $35
after 30 days, people hold it to a slightly higher standard than its rivals.


Opera’s biggest plus is its small size: 10M, acceptable even for ancient 386SX
computers. For older systems there is no better choice. The download is just a bit larger
than 1M and takes only a few minutes even with a slow connection.


Users accustomed to Communicator or Explorer will find a few things about Opera that
take some getting used to. The command line is at the bottom of the screen instead of the
top. If you have the Windows taskbar set to pop up when the cursor gets close, sometimes
you cannot type in a new Web address.


Simplicity has its price. The downloaded version of Opera does not support Java. To
correct that, you must download a 5M Java extension from Sun Microsystems Inc.


Overall, I see no compelling reason, except size, for users to pay for this browser
when they could get a different one for free. 


The GCN Lab staff rated the three browsers in this review by several criteria. The
first was browsing speed, which was tested using industry-standard browser and Java
benchmarks, as well as stopwatch tests.


The second criterion was number of features present. The lab graded each feature
according to whether it was useful in the workplace and easy to use.


Finally, the lab looked at system resource demands. If two browsers could do the same
thing, the lab awarded a bonus to the one that could accomplish the task with less memory,
hard drive space and overall resource demands.


Price was a minor factor. As the Opera browser is the only one with a price tag, it was
held to a slightly higher standard.


GCN Lab director Michael Cheek contributed to this report. 

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